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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 08:15 GMT
Ghosts stalk Thai tsunami survivors
By Tony Cheng
BBC News, Phuket

Lek looks nervously at the Patong sea shore as he describes the passengers who climbed into his tuk tuk minivan late at night on 6 January.

"Go to Kata Beach", the seven foreign tourists told him, after agreeing on a 200 baht fee.

Empty restaurant in Krabi, Thailand 11/01/05
The scale of the disaster may have taken time to register

He drove a while, but then felt numb all over his body.

Looking around he saw the cab was empty. He had had what he thinks was an encounter with the ghosts that many say are haunting the beaches and resorts on Thailand's Andaman coast.

And the religious charms he wears around his neck are not helping him overcome his fears.

"I can't get over this. I'm going to have to get a new job. I have a daughter to support, but I'm too scared to go out driving at night," he said.

Lek's experiences are by no means unique.

Other apparitions which have been reported include a foreign woman, whose screams echo through the night from the wreckage of a hotel that was particularly badly hit.

A security guard on the site has already left his job because he could not bear it anymore.

In Khao Lak, a local family say their telephone constantly rings through the day and night. When answered, the voices of friends and relatives cry out to be rescued from the flames of the crematorium.

Such reports, according to psychologist Dr Wanlop Piyamanutham, are signs of post traumatic stress disorder.

He pointed to the fact that many stories started to appear about 10 days after the wave struck.

At such times religion is very important because there is nothing else
The venerable Bhikkhu Sugandha

That was when the real horror of the loss and devastation hit people, he says. Now it is spreading beyond those immediately affected.

"With all of the pictures on the television, and everyone talking about the disaster, it affected many more people, who have reported seeing ghosts and smelling corpses," he said.

And Dr Wanlop has an explanation for why such a large number of "foreign" ghosts have been seen.

"Foreigners make a big impression on Thais," he said.

"They're physically imposing, and often seem rich and powerful. If people like that die in terrible circumstances, it's not surprising they should come back in people's minds as ghosts, especially when they have so far to get home."

Peace of mind

That might provide a logical explanation, but it does not provide much comfort.

For that, many Thais have turned to Buddhism, the majority religion in the country.

Although superstitious beliefs are common in Thailand, with many houses incorporating a spirit house to appease local ghosts, Buddhist scripture has guidance on dealing with the supernatural, much of which is a remnant of previous animist religious practices which pre-date the arrival of Buddhism.

Ethnic Chinese shaman tries to give information about a missing Thai girl, 18/01/05
Relatives are turning to traditional practices for help

Local folk beliefs have given monks the power to dispel troubled spirits, and many are prepared to provide "protection" if it is needed.

"We can do nothing to ward off the spirits", says the venerable Bhikkhu Sugandha, "but if it helps make people feel more comfortable, we can be around to comfort them."

He believes that in a period of crisis, monks can provide a very useful counselling service.

"At such times religion is very important because there is nothing else. The service the monks provide is just to listen, to be there, and to let them know that there is someone more grounded to listen."

Other religions are offering more direct help, and Patong beach has seen several "exorcisms" performed by Chinese spiritualists in the last few weeks.

In one, white robed monks from the Pu Ta Gong sect chanted prayers and offered sacrifices of food to the spirits.

Special offerings of pizza were included for foreign 'spirits', and paper clothes and money were burned to help in the passage to the after world.

As clouds of incense drifted down the white sand and over the calm blue waters, the troubled spirits of the dead and missing were urged to return home, for the sake of the peace of mind of the living.


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